Friendship is a choice (or, how the church teaches me to love)

What would you give your life for?

Your kids? Your spouse? Your family?

Would you give your life for people you don’t know? People forced into prostitution in Bangalore, or unborn babies?

Would you give your life for the Church? Paul tells us Jesus gave his life for just this thing. Jesus gave his life for the Church.

More precisely, Jesus gave his life for people, who are the flesh and blood of the Church. I can’t even begin to comprehend the motives of God. Why does he care about people who are imperfect, selfish, unkind, unthinking, unloving? How was it that Moses and God could find such frustration in fickle people, yet be fully on their side at the end of each day? That reveals a depth of patience and a quality of love I can’t fathom.

God has a vested interest in us and the cross is proof. Further, he has partnered with us through the Holy Spirit. He offers a brand of intimacy and belonging that nothing else can approach. God has literally given his life to us.

But I’m a pastor. Subtly and not so subtly, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ. We are taught the psychology of being in community without getting tangled up in it. Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. And maybe this is especially true of itinerating pastors.

Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus is teaching me something radically different here. Jesus is teaching me that it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry. Not beyond but in the midst of community.

When Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends,” he is teaching something radical about community. Find your friends here, he says. And when Jesus says (John 15:16), “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you,” he is challenging us to do something radical. We rejected him, but he still chooses us.

Love is a choice.

Which means I am now free to love even in the face of rejection. We are free to give our hearts to others, to community, because Jesus has chosen to live out his character in us.

In conversations with a few single friends, I have discovered there is a hunger out there for genuine friendships that don’t suffer from the fear of sexual expectation. It seems that our culture has us all so afraid of each other that we default to a defensive posture, keeping ourselves at a distance, unwilling to develop healthy, vulnerable relationships.

This doesn’t have to be.

Jesus had friends … not just disciples, but friends. John 11:5 says, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” This is the one personal friendship the Bible mentions for Jesus and it includes women.

I would be lost without precious friends — male and female — who add such value to my life. Being a pastor, most of my colleagues are men (and since Steve is a teacher, most of his colleagues are women). We don’t shy away from friendship with the people God has placed in our lives. We know who we are and are able to act as responsible adults when we are with others. Our lives are enriched by this choice. Here are a few things that make our friendships work:

Transparency — Any healthy friendship requires a lack of anything resembling secrecy, especially when it is with a friend of another gender. There should be no shadow of dishonesty, nor of politics. Too often, pastors erect political boundaries that keep us from real conversations and real influence. We’ve chosen correctness over kindness. Who says we can’t be genuinely in relationship with the people in our communities? We can decide to do this without abusing relationships, simply by being honest with people about who we are. And we can do so maturely without violating the standards of holiness.

Boundaries — I control my own boundaries. I get to choose the nature of my relationships. I am not a victim of other people’s feelings nor of my own, and my reactions are a choice. All of us who follow Jesus should aspire to that level of maturity. “Grow up in every way,” Paul counseled. Surely he meant it for our relationships, too. This means I can decide how and when I can be present to others and it means I can choose to love others without fear of their responses because I know who I am.

Hear me clearly: I am responsible for my own brain, and my friends are responsible for theirs. When we practice healthy boundaries and take responsibility for our side of the fence, we open ourselves up to the blessing of good community life.

Accountability — Friends hold each other accountable for their actions. They respect and accept each other, yet they are not afraid to confront each other when the need arises. Friends depend on one another for support in times of crisis, whether emotional or material. Friendship is a relationship of trust, confidence, and intimacy. It is not southern kindness, but something deeper — a willingness to speak truth in love.

Learning to live vulnerably and maturely in relationship with others — learning to be a real friend — is a gift on the way to real life and it is the work of the Church for which Jesus died.

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What a farm fence taught me about life and resolutions

I am remembering a walk one day along the fence line of a family farm. The farm has since passed to other hands, but the lessons of that fence have stayed with me. I offer these principles here for those looking for direction for a new year and a fresh start:

First, walk your fence line and look for gaps. Fences are important to the work of a farm. A weak fence is an open invitation to a predator. It’s also an invitation for a horse or cow to go where they shouldn’t. Checking the fence line for gaps is an important part of farming. Likewise, checking spiritual fence lines is an important part of personal growth. Checking the fence line is about getting our motives right. When our motives are prideful (we want to win) or selfish (we want what we want), then God will step back and let us do our own thing. But when our motives are right (we’re after things God values) then we can be confident He’s in there with us.

This is straight out of the Bible. We are encouraged to test ourselves — to be fearless in looking for spiritual gaps and places where the enemy can get to us. Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

If you’re hoping to be more effective, more productive, more in tune with God’s will in 2016, then start with David’s prayer. “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” Walk the fence lines; look for gaps. Be ruthless in shaking the posts to ensure the weak places get reinforced. We don’t have anything to fear when we walk the fence lines. We may have have gaps, but gaps we know about can be fixed. We can begin again.

Some gaps have a purpose (but even planned gaps need tending). At my father-in-law’s farm, there was one place in the fence where the gap was wide and obviously there on purpose. Joe had an agreement with the guy who owned the pasture next to his, so the neighbor’s cows were able to come and go freely between the two pastures. But even planned gaps have limits. Joe pointed out a couple of issues with the gap we were looking at and said he was going to have to tell the guy that if he didn’t take care of those issues, he would have to close the gap and the cows wouldn’t have access to his pasture any more. Weakened gaps in your fence — even planned gaps — and the whole point of the fence is lost.

Where have you allowed unhealthy gaps — too many commitments, too much on your plate for you to do any of it well?

Firebreaks serve not just us but those around us. A firebreak is a shallow trench dug into the ground about five feet inside the fence line. When a property owner has a planned burn to clear out the underbrush in an area, they build a firebreak to keep the fire from jumping over onto the neighbor’s property. Don’t dig a firebreak on the property line; dig inside the property

What a great word for those of us who tend to live at our limits. If we’re going to be respectful of the people around us, we’ve got know our limits and live not at them but inside them. Build a fire break not just for your own sanity but for everyone else’s, too. Maybe James had this at least partly in mind when he said, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark” (James 3:5). When we get past our limits emotionally, we too easily end up blowing sparks in the direction of people who don’t deserve to be burned.

Practice controlled burns. After digging a firebreak a few feet in from the fence line, a property owner will set their own woods on fire. On purpose. The point is to clear out the underbrush, get rid of dead trees and limbs and stimulate seed germination. As a metaphor, this is such a rich idea. This is about getting rid of the stuff that seems harmless but is actually sapping the life out of us. It’s also about getting rid of the stuff we know is hurting us. Jesus said (Matthew 5:29-30), “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Jesus is talking here about a controlled burn — about getting rid of anything that might start a fire in your life or sap nutrients from the more important stuff. What needs to go (even good stuff), so more productive things can flourish?

I want to challenge you early in this new year to take some time apart to walk your fence line and look for the gaps that need repair. Dig a firebreak well inside your property line not just for yourself, but for the people around you. Do a controlled burn; get rid of the underbrush and the dead wood. Prime your soil for new growth.

A new year is a great time for a new start. Are you with me?

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